Written by Byron Xu.
Graphic by Ashley Mireles.
The Rise and Fall of Kentucky’s Crack-Slinging, Skydiving Cowboy and His CIA-Backed International Drug Ring
They found the bear on the mountains of Fannin County, Georgia, next to 15 million dollars worth of cocaine—or what remained of 15 million dollars worth of cocaine after the bear had gotten to it. Officers from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation had been searching for the coke since that September, when hunters reported bags of white falling from heaven like real snow.
Now it was December 20, 1985. The bear—affectionately named Pablo Escobear—had been dead four weeks. Scattered around his body on the hillside of Chattahoochee National Forest, the GBI found over 40 packages of cocaine, most of which had been clawed open. All in all, Pablo had snorted 88 pounds of coke. He had one hell of a high, then his organs exploded; when GBI agents finally found his corpse, “[There was] nothing left but bones and a big hide,” said Agent Gary Gardner.
But Fannin County, Georgia is really where the story ends.
As GBI agents would later discover, Pablo was the (unintentional) last victim of a drug-smuggling ring called The Company. This organization stretched metaphorically over a decade and physically from Columbia to the United States; only days before Pablo’s death, the leader of The Company had fallen from the sky and splattered against a small driveway in Knoxville, Tennessee, along with a parachute and 79 pounds of cocaine wrapped in brown plastic. The story of how 220 pounds of Company cocaine rained down on Georgia and Tennessee—killing, in different ways, both bear and man—is fundamentally the coda of The Company’s leader. To understand how Pablo Eskobear died of probably the highest high in history, you would need to understand what led to the final drug smuggling flight of Andrew Carter Thornton II, Kentucky’s last great American cowboy, and the organization he started nearly a decade ago.
Way, way back on September 11, 1945, Thornton was born in Lexington, Kentucky. The son of two thoroughbred horse breeders, he grew up as a part of the straight-edged, blue-blood aristocracy. At first an obedient, well-behaved boy, Thornton joined the military academy, then the military, and then the police; in the early 1970s, like many other “good boys,” he beat up kids protesting the Vietnam War.
It’s hard to say if Thornton’s taste of extrajudicial action as a cop changed him, but soon after, Thornton tried working with the Drug Enforcement Agency only to soon get bored. Perhaps bureaucratic work was never in Thornton’s personality. Cops who knew him—and his military background—described him as an “edge-walker”; according to DEA agent Larry Lakin, a coworker, Thornton was an “adventurer driven by adrenaline rushes.” Either way, Thornton soon turned to the flip side of the federal coin: drug smuggling. By 1977, with the help of his childhood friend Bradley Bryant, Thornton was stealing drugs collected as evidence and selling the contraband in a large-scale operation that would later become The Company.
In the 1970s and 1980s, allegations spread that the Central Intelligence Agency was funding drug cartels to spy on foreign enemies. Take, for instance, the case of Alberto Sicilia-Falcon, who was once ranked the most powerful and dangerous drug smuggler in the Western Hemisphere, who dreamt of “buying his own country with his drug profits”—and who, in a classic case of I’ll-scratch-your-back-if-you-scratch-mine, was granted immunity by the CIA from prosecution in return for sponsoring a coup attempt in Portugal and providing informants in Mexico. It should be no surprise, then, that as The Company’s distribution network grew, so did the organization’s links with the CIA. By 1979, while Thornton got his hands on Cessna 210, 310, and 410 planes to reach cocaine suppliers in Columbia, Bryant got in contact with his friends Edwin P. Wilson and Frank Terpil, two ex-CIA contractors, to discuss weapons and anti-surveillance technology for Thornton’s planes.
As The Company smuggled cocaine into the U.S., the crossing of their Cessnas raised increased suspicion on the border and in South American airspace. Wilson and Terpil’s solution to The Company’s problem was plucked straight from a James Bond movie: they suggested the theft of an IFF Radar, a device used by military jets to bypass security checks from law enforcement planes. In the hands of The Company, the technology meant The Company’s drug flights would no longer receive harassment on the U.S. border. In order to get their hands on an IFF Radar, Wilson and Terpil’s idea was to rob the supply at China Lake Naval Weapons Center, a top secret, experimental military facility. They solicited the help of Larry, Bryant’s cousin, an Air Force electronics expert with national security clearance.
The extent of the CIA’s involvement in Wilson and Terpil’s heist is still unclear. Both Wilson and Terpil claimed the CIA turned a blind eye to The Company’s activities in return for fulfilling certain contract assignments like the robbery at China Lake. Indeed, while procuring the IFF Radar, as well as various weapons, advanced signal interceptors, and night vision scopes, Larry justified to China Lake employees that he was acting as a clandestine CIA operative who needed the technology to trade for a Soviet radar system in Libya. These claims were never independently verified. In fact, the Company managed to procure the tech they needed without raising any suspicions—but that success was short-lived.
On January 8th, 1980, the two Bryant cousins and their bodyguard, Roger Barnard, were arrested by police at Philadelphia International Airport under drug charges. After pulling off an act of national espionage, it was carelessness that got them in the end: while the Bryants had been staying at the Sheraton Airport Inn, maids smelled marijuana through the air vents. After noticing the occupants only tipped in hundred dollar bills, the suspicious manager called 911.
The Philadelphia police raided Room 608 at the Sheraton, expecting a drug bust, and found themselves completely out of their depth. Scattered around the hotel room, the Bryants had left, among other things: a collection of semi-automatic weapons, confidential pamphlets like The Top-Secret Registry of U.S. Government Radio Frequencies, $22,800 in cash, explosive ammunition, monitoring devices stolen from China Lake, and, written on a slip of paper, a CIA number that—when called—was used to inform undercover spies if the line was being monitored. Suspecting a much larger operation, the police contacted the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. When prompted by ATF agents to explain, Bryant remained silent except to imply he was working for the “good guys.”
Ultimately, the CIA denied everything and left The Company out to dry. Using receipts discovered at the Sheraton, police soon made connections to the theft at China Lake; Bryant was indicted for drug trafficking and theft of government property. They came after Thornton next.
To the end, Thornton always maintained that what The Company was doing—for the cartels, for the CIA—was necessary. It certainly wasn’t all for money, because by the 1970s Thornton was already a millionaire. Instead, in an interview with the Chicago Tribune, a friend described how Thornton might have envisioned his operation: “They were cowboys.”
The sentiment was echoed by Thornton’s ex-wife, Betty Zairing; according to her, Thornton meditated, and in those quiet moments came to perceive himself as beyond good and evil. According to the Chicago Tribune, he was, respectively: constantly paranoid, a purist, a paragon born for greater things.
On February 27, 1982, after several months on the run as a fugitive in the aftermath of the China Lake heist, Thornton was caught and sentenced (as an associate of Bryant’s) to six months at a Lexington jail. The sentencing of Bryant and various other Company associates shook the already paranoid Thornton, and he started to distrust everyone that wasn’t himself. After his release, between 1982 and 1985, Thornton struck out on his own and left the larger Company to fragment behind him. He entered a smuggling agreement with what would become the Medellín Cartel in Columbia. In September 1985, Thornton—alongside an unidentified accomplice—agreed to fly a total of 80 million dollars worth of Medellín cocaine to American distributors. It would be his last flight.
A Black Hawk helicopter and two DEA jet planes intercepted Thornton’s Cessna 404 as they crossed the U.S. border. But Thornton was prepared. Under the cockpit light, against the darkness and the stars outside, Thornton and his accomplice attached parachutes to themselves, then to the cocaine. They dropped the packages out of the door, to be picked up by Medellín smugglers on the ground. Thornton wore the last package of cocaine in a duffel bag around his body. He kicked his accomplice—who had never skydived before—out of the Cessna, before checking his own parachute; then he set the plane to crash in the mountains of North Carolina and jumped into the cold winter air.
Always suspicious, and confident in his military experience, Thornton allowed no one else to touch his parachutes. Before he’d jumped, Thornton must have calculated the amount of weight his parachute could handle, and been satisfied. This time, with a duffel bag tied around him, Thornton was wrong.
Sometime between twelve and three A.M., with the city lights of Knoxville, Tennessee in the far distance, Andrew Carter Thornton II fell from the sky. His main parachute failed to slow him down, as did his reserve. At terminal velocity, he slammed into the driveway of Fred Myers, who found a crumpled heap of a man through the window the next morning while shaving.
The leader and final remaining member of The Company broke his neck on landing and pretty much everything else. When the Knoxville police came to autopsy Thornton’s body, he was wearing combat fatigues, a bulletproof vest, and Gucci loafers—a trifecta of clothing that told the range of his paramilitary, violent, extravagant life. In his pocket, Thornton had stored an epigram; a good luck charm, of sorts. It spoke to both his and The Company’s end, and went: “There is only one tactical principle not subject to change: It is to inflict the maximum amount of wounds, death and destruction on the enemy in the minimum amount of time.”
On September 14th, two U.S. Forest Rangers stumbled upon a black duffle bag hanging from a parachute in a tree in northern Georgia. Upon opening the bag, they found 150 pounds of cocaine. A few days later, a black bear in Fannin County, Georgia stumbled upon the rest.
Don’t celebrate Thornton’s life, the police say, and they are right. Thornton was a bad man who had people killed. John H. Wood, judge; Gene Berry, attorney; Robert S. Walker, informant; Harold W. Brown, DEA. These were a few of the good men gunned down during The Company’s ruthless rise.
Despite Thornton’s bloody history, or perhaps because of it—that provocative allure of the dark side of the American Dream—not much heed was paid to the cops. Thornton was buried in bluegrass Bourbon County, and his funeral was a crowd of aristocratic social climbers, lawyers, and businessmen there to pay their final respects, not spit on the grave of a mobster, which, in the end, was all Thornton was. “Thornton was very fond of the words of the Oriental philosopher who said, ‘Man can overcome any obstacle if he knows in his heart that he must and in his mind that he shall,’” eulogized the Reverend at the ceremony. It’s unnoted if there was any mention of penance.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation agent on his case called Thornton “a little boy who never grew up.” His ex-wife called him a “romantic hero.” His parents, after everything, refused to comment. But regardless of how people saw him—and whether he deserved it or not—Thornton always spawned legends in his wake. His own, and after his death, one more: the Cocaine Bear, a.k.a. Cokey the Bear, a.k.a. Pablo Eskobear.
The post-death journey of Pablo became a myth in its own right. The GBI passed Pablo’s corpse to a taxidermist, from whence it was displayed in the visitor center at Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. After a forest fire, Pablo was evacuated, stored, then stolen. He resurfaced in a Las Vegas mansion, then was auctioned off to a Chinese medicine shop. Finally, the shop owner’s wife sold Pablo to the Kentucky Fun Mall for $200.
Today, if you visit Pablo—displayed in the mall’s lobby—you might spy a placard hung on a chain around the taxidermied bear’s neck. In the grandest twist of absurdity that Thornton would be proud of, the text of the placard reads: “Don’t do drugs.”